Before we get going, I should probably explain what I’m doing here. In a previous life, I covered local politics and crime in D.C., a job I enjoyed for myriad reasons. The District of Columbia is a complex and wonderful city, full of interesting characters, compelling stories and great conflict. It’s also filled with secrets.
One of the very best parts of my job was reporting on Freedom of Information Act requests. It’s like getting a peek at your kid sister’s diary, if your kid sister just misappropriated government funding and/or covered up a professional scandal. I just ate it up.
So even though I’ve moved on to a different gig, I’d like to try to help you navigate this world. It’s not nearly as boring as it sounds.
Here’s a look at four different types of FOIAs:
Also known as “the one where everything works out.” This generally happens for a couple of reasons: (1) You knew exactly what you’re looking for, and (2) You worked with a public information officer or other official to properly phrase your request.
When I was first starting out as a reporter, I was pretty nervous about looking super professional. I’m exceedingly shy in real life, and I’d often get flustered when a PIO seemed annoyed at my questions. I’d fumble around on the phone, and sometimes I’d botch the whole thing by ending the conversation too soon.
No one wants to feel silly and uninformed, especially when it’s our job as journalists to be knowledgeable. But here’s the thing: To get the information you need, you sometimes have to step outside your comfort zone.
That’s why it helps to call the PIO so you can explain what you’re looking for before you submit a FOIA request. If you already know exactly what you need, that’s great. The PIO will usually work with you to get you the best result. That’s their job, after all, just like it’s your job to ask the question in the first place. Ask if you can get records on electronic format instead of paper, because it’s both cheaper and easier to search. Ask if your request is too limited or too broad.
Ask if there’s anything you’re leaving out or anything else you need to know. Ask if there’s another agency that would also have data that would be relevant to the search. Ask the questions and be OK with feeling like a little bit of a dummy. In the end, you’ll probably get a better story because of it.
This is my favorite FOIA of all time and I wish more people would do it. Did you know, that when someone dies, you can request the person’s FBI file? It’s a real thing, and you should really try it. You don’t even have to know if they have an FBI file. I even tried it once with Billy Mays. I didn’t have any luck, but I’m still glad I at least asked. Here’s a short list of people who did have FBI files:
When I die, will someone ask for my file? That is my only request. Is it weird that I’ve already thought of this?
The wild card
This is what I’ve decided to call the FOIA where you don’t know what you’re going to get. I’ve done this dance a few times. Here’s how it goes: You see something mildly interesting in a police blotter or school district brief and you think: Things are getting weird there. So you take a chance, write a quick FOIA request that casts a very wide net, and see what comes up.
Here’s an example. Last year, there was a criminal incident at a local school, and the story caught my eye. I thought something odd was going on — and wanted to file a request to learn more. When I read my old FOIA letter now, it’s clear that I didn’t really know what I was looking for. So when I requested incident reports, I asked for all of them.
As it turned out, we got the information I had asked for after I’d already left for a new job. And there was a lot of it! Thanks to my former co-workers for doing all the heavy lifting on this project, because as it turned out, what we learned was really interesting.
That’s the kind of project that happens when you take a chance on an odd and quirky story. You never really know what’s out there — and to be honest, a lot of times you’re going to fail. It’s not a waste of time or money, so you shouldn’t get discouraged. You asked a question and you got an answer — even if it wasn’t the answer you wanted.
The FOIA of the FOIA’ers
Sometimes you can submit a records request asking for other records requests that have also been filed on a similar subject. (Here’s an example from Washington City Paper.) This move might seem a little ornery to some people. Others might see it as a very good way get a handle on what everyone else is reporting.
Another variation of this, which is probably more common, is requesting all e-mails on a certain subject and then keeping an eye out for the ones from other media organizations. Remember those Mark Sanford e-mails? That’s what I mean here.
Have a seat, take some time, and come up with about three or four things you want to know. (I used to try to keep three requests going at all times.) It doesn’t have to be big stuff. It just has to be a question that needs an answer. There are a lot of resources out there to help you submit your request.
If that doesn’t work, ask a beloved former professor. Or a trusted college pal. Or, whatever, ask me, that’s cool. Let’s nerd out over this. It can be fun, I promise. There’s so much we can do as journalists if we would just buckle down, learn to accept the occasional spreadsheet, and realize that our job sometimes means that we’re allowed to read other people’s e-mails without negative consequences.
If you have questions, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.